The Third Circuit, which covers Delaware, has ruled that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act provides a cause of action to an employee fired for having an abortion. Although the case involves an unusual set of facts, it serves as an important reminder that compassion provides rewards beyond good karma – it can keep you out of court.
Doe v. C.A.R.S. Protection Plus, Inc.
After learning that there might be problems with her pregnancy, the plaintiff, “Doe,” shared the information with her employer. Tests showed severe deformities and, at her doctor’s recommendation, she had an abortion. On the day of the funeral ceremony, three days after the abortion, Doe was terminated.
The employer asserted that Doe failed to follow company policies with regard to her absence from work during her medical procedure and in the days following. Doe presented evidence that her husband had called in to arrange the time off.
The employer had what the court called a “somewhat less than compassionate leave policy.” Employees were given no personal or sick leave. After one year on the job, employees were given five days’ paid vacation. Any time taken off during a work day was to be deducted from the employee’s vacation time or be unpaid. When employees were out sick, the employee or spouse had to call in on a daily basis. But evidence was presented that showed not all employees were treated the same with respect to the daily call-in rule.
An Abortion Is a Protected Activity Under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act
The Pregnancy Discrimination Act (“PDA”) is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and states that discrimination on the basis of “sex” includes discrimination “because of or on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions.” The PDA does not require preferential treatment for pregnant employees but mandates that employers treat pregnant employees the same as non-pregnant employees who are similarly situated with respect to their ability to work.
Doe’s allegations did not make for a typical pregnancy-discrimination claim. She did not claim, for instance, that she was discriminated against because she was pregnancy or that she had been fired while on maternity leave. Instead, she argued that she was discharged because she underwent a surgical abortion. Whether or not protections generally afforded pregnant women under the PDA also extend to women who elect to terminate their pregnancies was an issue that had not been decided in the Third Circuit.
The EEOC has taken the position that it is an unlawful employment practice to fire a woman because she had an abortion. This was also the position taken in an early decision in Delaware’s federal court. Referencing both sources, the Third Circuit held that abortion is protected conduct under the PDA.
Evidence of Discriminatory Intent
The Court found enough evidence to refute the employer’s stated non-discriminatory reason for termination and permitted Doe’s claim to proceed to trial. The evidence persuasive to the Court included: (1) daily call-in rule was not enforced with other employees; (2) another employee stated that Doe’s supervisor (who fired her) stated that Doe “didn’t want to take responsibility,” possibly in reference to her abortion; and (3) Doe was fired only three working days after the abortion.
Lessons for All Employers
Abortion does not often arise as part of a discrimination (or any other) claim against an employer because such a procedure is often kept private by the employee. An employer cannot discriminate on the basis of conduct that it knows nothing about. Also, the facts in this case, where the baby was wanted, and the employee had abortion for medical reasons, may be somewhat rare.
Nevertheless, the lessons from this case are applicable to many types of discrimination claims and provide a good reminder for employers. Simple changes to the employer’s policies and decision-making procedure would have resulted in a dramatically different outcome.
1. Make your leave policies reasonable. If humanity is not enough to persuade you on this point, then the risk of litigation should. It is clear that this employer’s draconian leave policy won no favors with the court, and certainly would not have won any points with a jury. Moreover, where leave policies are so unreasonable that practically no one can abide by them, exceptions will be made routinely. When exceptions are made, subjectivity comes into play and it can be very difficult to defend why exceptions were made in some cases and not others.
2. Disseminate your policies, and enforce them consistently. Inconsistent treatment gets the employee past the first hurdle of any discrimination claim.
3. Never forget to take timing into account with any serious employment action. If you are considering taking an adverse employment action directly following some protected activity, which, in Delaware, now includes an abortion, think twice. Consider giving the employee a second chance and let some time elapse before taking action. Again, if benevolence does not lead you in the right direction here, know that many a discrimination case was moved onto trial because of suggestive timing.
Doe v. C.A.R.S. Protection Plus, Inc., Nos. 06-3625, 06-4508 (3d Cir. May 20, 2008).